Friday, March 13, 2009


I can’t believe I left this book off my favorite autobiographies list (as well as off an earlier list of books about great music creators).

Armstrong was not only the musical genius we all know him to be—one of the greatest musicians and musical innovators of all time—but he was also, like many “artists,” actively creative in many other forms—like collage and painting and especially writing.

He kept a little portable typewriter with him in dressing rooms throughout his career, typing away before or between sets, or after them before heading home, etc. He tells his own story in fragments here, recovering some time periods and missing others (it’s a “selection” from a giant trove of typed pages he left behind when he passed).

His original use of punctuation and grammatically original word combinations and usages remind me of the composer Charles Ives’ writings, another homegrown musical genius I too often leave off my lists. The difference is with this volume, Armstrong’s unique usages of underlining and italics and punctuation is kept mostly intact so we can see how he was using these devices in a musical way, something Ives' editor seemed to have overlooked in his published essays which were unfortunately “corrected” so that his uses of dashes and periods and commas and ellipsis etc. were ignored and turned into some copy editor’s idea of conformity!

Don’t these guys realize who they’re dealing with? I always hated the ways in which the arbiters of “universal” usage based their rules on what they thought/think are some kind of permanent standards set up by some ancient committee of English Language overlords or something when in fact most grammar and punctuation rules came out of necessity (e.g. when the monks’ handwritten scrolls were originally transferred to printed type on a page, the size of the type determined the length of lines in such ways that it often meant a printer’s devil (assistant, another job I actually held for a while in my youth working for an independent book publisher) made the decision to drop which letter and substitute an apostrophe to make the line fit), etc.

Anyway, someone like Armstrong who broke the rules of European musical composition and ideas of improvisation, let alone tone etc., to create something newer and more vital to his times and circumstances, ought to be free to fool with grammar and punctuation anyway he likes. And he does. And for the most part, this edition leaves them in.

But I’d like to see all his writings the way he intended them to be put together. As it is, this selection offers so many examples of real-time language usage and musical history, as well as many memorable vignettes etc., it’s well worth the price of admission.

Here’s a randomly selected sample (I skipped anything that had a lot of underlining and italics because I still can't get them to work on this thing):

“From the first time I picked up my trumpet, or the one that was out to the Orphanage, I was a popular youngster…Success has always been—mine…So was never a thought for me to do dirty things to people or think that there was anyone whom ever wanted do me any harm…Hmmm…But they did…”

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...


This post makes a sort of routine claim for the life of the idiom tongue.

It's true that language is a living thing. It's not fixed and it isn't the province of the privileged.

On the other hand, ignorance, as a generator of meaning and new usage can't be defended as a creative resource.

If you can't spell, and can't make an English sentence, and can't speak clearly, you're ignorant. Not stupid, but ignorant. Lots of teenagers look for justification in their laziness. Ignorance "entitles" them to believe that their poor language skills don't matter, that what matters is having a good time, and not wasting valuable time learning about language. It's fine to excuse ignorance by referring to class and prejudice and exclusions, but that isn't an argument against good grammar, and clear thought.

Armstrong was a great musician, but that doesn't in and of itself make what he said correct, or useful. Nor does it make his life exemplary. It may indeed have been, but deprivation isn't, by itself, a kind of entitlement. It's just deprivation, and all the bad things that come with deprivation aren't "advantages" to be celebrated. They're symptoms of a problem. Let's solve the problem instead of celebrating the symptoms of the disease. Black and Hispanic and just plain poor teenagers need to be told this, instead of coddled and misled by well-meaning apologists.